Rationality and Historical Validity of Faiths

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”
John 1:1

The word for Word, of course, is ‘Logos,’ which means ‘Word,’ ‘Account,’ ‘Fraction,’ or ‘Reason.’

Its somewhat self-referential, but a comparison of religions from the Christian perspective is really a comparison of Reasons, and determining which one is most rational. Of course, religion predates the tool of science, so I’m not saying that religion is scientific, but in the Christian tradition religion is rational.

Therefore, a first cut through the world’s religions removes irrational religions, such as mysticism or animism, as simply not compatible with what a religion should be. These may be avenues or reflections of something that is true in a religion, but they cannot be rational religions in themselves.

This reduces the number of possible religions rather sharply, and we are basically left with two rational traditions

  • Abrahamic
  • Dharmic

I think from an evolution of thought perspective these two systems seem to be the most ‘fit.’ For instance, take this striking visualization

With which only a few present a historical account or reason why it is valid instead of others. Many faiths appear to faith, of course, but those that provide a system of evidence of arguing that their historical claims are actually true.
As far as I’ve read, the faiths that present an argument from historical validity may be classified as

  • Catholic Christianity
  • Orthodox Christianity
  • Rabbinical Judaism
  • Islam (most varieties)
  • Sri Lankan Buddhism
  • Chinese Buddhism

Faiths I am specifically and intentionally excluding include:

  • Protestant Christianity: A coherent adherence to Sola Scriptura removes these faiths from the need for historical validty, and a rejection of Sola Scriptura is incoherent
  • Zen Buddhism: Tibetan Buddhism is a form of spirit worship
  • Japanese Shinto/Buddhism: ditto, but with nature worship too
  • Mormonism/Scientology: Science-fiction faiths which are empirically testable, and thus not faiths, but rather (astoundingly improbable) scientific theories

So back to the list

Sri Lankan Buddhism is very well attested, but I am not sure that it is not simply a form of atheism.

In areas where Chinese Buddhism contradicts Sri Lankan Buddhism, (a) Sri Lankan Buddhism’s version is attested hundreds of years earlier, and just as suspiciously, (b) Chinese Buddhism is remarkably similar to Nestorian Christianity (even has a Trinity!), which was introduced to China at about the time at Chinese Buddhism formed

So of the four that remain, all incorporate by reference a trail of documents and books stretching back to Abraham in the desert, all have rather details accounted of the Roman Empire, and all hinge on specific teachings given by Jesus which we can only access second- or third- hand.

Of these four, the Islamic tradition is the worst attested. The Koran contains numerous innovations that contradict the both Catholic/Orthodox Christianity and Judaism, some of which are simply unattested (Did Abraham offer up Isaac or Ishmael) and some of which are very improbable (the Koran’s claim that Jews worship Ezra as the Son of God):

“And the Jews say: Ezra is the son of Allah, and the Christians say: The Messiah is the son of Allah. That is their saying with their mouths. They imitate the saying of those who disbelieved of old. Allah (Himself) fighteth against them. How perverse are they!
—Qur’an, Sura At-Tawba”

This is a striking passage. I cannot think of a similar one in another tradition, in which a major tenant of a rival religion is stated incorrectly. It would be akin to Luther arguing that Catholics believe that Mary is the Pope — it’s not just a caricature of the belief, it doesn’t even make sense as a slander.

Between Catholic/Orthodox Christianity and Rabbinical Judaism, the question is more difficult, as both are in a real sense bolted on to the now vanished faith of Temple Judaism. They may both be considered to incorporate the Old Testament, to have a follow-on system of laws or interpretations (the New Testament for the Catholics and Orthodox, the Oral Torah for Rabbinical Jews), and to emphasize the role of context in understanding these.

Between Catholic/Orthodox Christianity and Rabbinical Judaism, I would argue that the Catholic/Orthodox tradition is older (seemingly formed by AD 70 by Romanized Jews in Palestine) than the Rabbincal tradition (seemingly dating from AD 200 by Romanized Jews throughout the Empire). But ultimately this time difference is not very great in the scale of things, so here my argument becomes more tenuous.

The question between the Catholic and Orthodox traditions is more narrow yet, as it relies on a long-running debate over Church governance and the proper role of Church-State relations. The debate is almost identical to the debate between Trotsky and Stalin — is it best to have a world-wide revolutionary movement that opportunistically seeks to subvert States to its own ends (the Catholic/Trotskyite strategy) or it is best to build ‘in one country,’ with the Church/Party as the ‘heart’ of the State (the Orthodox/Stalinist strategy). Basically, the entire debate comes down to interpreting Paul’s words on government. I really don’t like the idea of National Churches, but perhaps that is my own cultural and intellectual bias.

Either way, that’s how I arrive at Catholicism — a focus on rationality, historic validity, and interpretation of a couple stray verses!

8 thoughts on “Rationality and Historical Validity of Faiths”

  1. Unfortunately, I think you might wish to revise that bit about Catholicism/Orthodoxy. since ~1965 both faiths recognize that they are one Church under an impaired communion. They are, by fits and starts, seeking union.

    By no means is Orthodoxy a chain of national churches. You have misunderstood it.

  2. I really don’t understand this…
    “Therefore, a first cut through the world’s religions removes irrational religions, such as mysticism or animism, as simply not compatible with what a religion should be. ” Why not? What “should” a religion be? What about gnosticism? Aren’t you trying to quantify something totally subjective? Your “should” makes me wonder if this is a lot of dogma. Saying Zen Buddhism is a form of spirit worship is just not true…

    I don’t think this post makes much sense, honestly. Please disagree…

  3. Lexington,

    Thanks for the kind words!

    I would be interested in reading your basis for the faith!

    TM Lutas,

    I used the term ‘faith’ to stay away from the tricky and loaded word ‘church.’ For instance, the Holy See recognizes the Orthodox as faiths as ‘churches’ (because of apostolic succession), does not Presybtarian faiths (Because of a lack thereof) and currently has an ambiugous view of the Church of England.

    Could you clarify your thoughts on the Orthodox churches more? I am interested in what you have to say! 🙂


    You raise a number of points, but I think the important one is;

    Your “should” makes me wonder if this is a lot of dogma.

    Basically, yup. 😉 That’s often considered to be the difference between religion and spirituality.

    Could you say a little more about Tibettan Budhdism?

  4. Hey Dan, the tone of a few sentences in my original comment was too snarky so I decided to leave them out since that doesn’t contribute anything of value.

    “Zen Buddhism: Tibetan Buddhism is a form of spirit worship. Japanese Shinto/Buddhism: ditto, but with nature worship too”

    When Buddhism moved into different cultures it adapted itself to the local belief system, particularly in the popular religion, so belief in spirits often survived within the larger framework of Buddhism, but that is not what Buddhism is about. In my understanding of Buddhism the spirits, deities etc would be seen as products of Mind. They may be incorporated into a particular tradition’s spiritual practice, but their value would hinge on whether they could help or hinder the quest for Enlightenment. But it is that goal of Enlightenment that is important not the worshipping of spirits and deities.

    A better and more accurate discussion of Buddhism would talk about Mahayana and Theravada Buddhism. Theravada is the older variety and the one that is found in Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand. Mahayana spread to Tibet, China, Mongolia, Japan, Korea and Vietnam. But there are so many varieties within each tradition that it is very difficult to generalize, except that the 4 Noble Truths and the 8-Fold Path remain the same.

    Tibetan Buddhism, far from being “spirit worship,” has a long and intricate intellectual tradition, that includes debate as a form of spiritual practice. Below is a link to a google books version of an account of a westerner who took the time to learn the Tibetan way.

    Click on “contents” and begin with the “Debate as Practice” chapter for a good discussion of debate and logic in Tibetan Buddhism:


  5. Hey Phil,

    Thanks for the excellent comment.

    The removal of snarky phrases can be a tragedy, as it often leaves nothing but agreement 😉

    I agree with you that spirit worship preceeds Buddhism in Tibet (and likewise Islam in Xinjiang). An old National Geographic described Tibetan Buddhism as “degenerate,” and looking at the Lama Temple in Beijing (and reading China Marches West), I’m inclined to agree, though by degenerate I mean that while maintaining the form of Buddhism it has been hallowed out by pre-Buddhist traditions. You probably could make the same argument about Vodoo as a continuation of African Vundun cloaked in Christian symbolism.

    That said, I have not read primary documents in the Tibetan tradition.

    I agree that the basic division of Buddhism is Mahayana (Salvation Vehicle) and Theravada. I used Chinese and Sri Lankan as shorthand for these words in my original post.

    I’l conclude by generally noting I am skeptical of modernist reinterpretations of ancient faiths… Hinduism as it exists now was notably constructed by the British and Anglicized Indians, in order to hollow out the pagan symbolisms and adopt monotheism.

  6. Dan,

    “I have not read primary documents in the Tibetan tradition”

    It’s likely that no Westerner has since it would require a good knowledge of Tibetan, Pali and Sanskrit. That’s why I agree with this:

    “I am skeptical of modernist reinterpretations of ancient faiths”

    Me too. I think we should be seeking modern solutions to our spiritual needs rather than attempting to find them in “ancient faiths.” There is an interesting book “The Tao of the West: Western Transformations of Taoist Thought” that looks at how Westerners have interpreted and misinterpreted Taoism. A similar book could be written about Western interpretations of Buddhism. We often go looking in other cultures for what we feel is missing from our own and so select elements of other religions that suit our purposes and ignore everything that doesn’t and end up with a distorted view of those religions. It is going to take a lot of time and a lot of Westerners committing themselves to an exploration of Buddhism as scholars and practitioners to really get it and I don’t see that happening anytime soon. This is why I am uneasy with this:

    “An old National Geographic described Tibetan Buddhism as “degenerate,” and looking at the Lama Temple in Beijing (and reading China Marches West), I’m inclined to agree, though by degenerate I mean that while maintaining the form of Buddhism it has been hallowed out by pre-Buddhist traditions.”

    This assumes that there is some perfect, ideal version of Buddhism that it degenerated from and I don’t think that there is such a thing in any religion. And it assumes that we have enough knowledge to judge it “degenerate.” There have been millions of people who have found spiritual sustenance within the many traditions of Tibetan Buddhism. What is important is whether they have felt that their spiritual needs were adequately met, not whether some Western intellectuals have determined that their beliefs are “degenerate.”

  7. Phil,

    Certainly, the look at historical validity assumes that historical validity is important. It may not be.

    By degenerate the author (I think) was using a meaning that would now be called “evolved” — that is, Tibetan Buddhism is strikingly different from what were probably the actual teachings of the Buddha, but well adapted to the local environment of feudal-era Tibet.

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